Hearing these teachings is like receiving an invitation from the Buddha.
This invitation is given freely and we are each free to respond in our own ways.
Tonight’s talk has been announced as: ‘A Buddhist Perspective on Faith, Hope and Despair’. We have called it ‘a’ perspective because there are as many different perspectives on this as there are Buddhists. And the talk is to be about ‘faith, hope and despair’ because these are concerns that are important to all of us, regardless of what our beliefs might be.
I would like to present to you this evening the idea that for us to engage hope with any degree of enthusiasm we must have a sure foundation of faith in our lives. Without real faith we feel like we can’t afford to really hope for anything, out of fear of being disappointed; and that is a great pity – it feels hopeless.
And as for despair, it comes to all of us at some time or other. I’m sure many of us are already aware of the serious consequences of denying its existence. We need to find a way to meet despair so that the message it carries can get through without our being crushed by it.
Based on a talk given at Strathclyde University, Glasgow, April 1997
What is Faith?
To begin with I’d like to talk not so much about what we have faith in, but what faith is. What actually is faith? We are not considering who has the ‘right’ faith or whether my faith is better than yours, but rather the reality of faith as a dimension of our lives.
First, how might we recognise the presence of faith? There is much that has been said about faith from an abstract perspective, that is, philosophically or theologically, but we might gain more by investigating it from an experiential perspective. In fact we lose a lot by not doing so. If direct personal experience as well as speculative thought informs our understanding then we find that we have our feet firmly on the ground. There is no need to defend our faith; rather, we find what emerges is a way for that faith to defend us, without any struggle.
If we consider this matter by exploring the functioning of faith, one of the first things we notice is that it enables trust. Remember, we are not yet saying anything about what we trust in; we are looking at the very activity of trusting. What are the consequences of trusting and not-trusting? What happens if we feel unable to trust? Taking the example of relationships in our outer life, many people experience the difficulty and struggle of dealing with a damaged capacity to trust – the possibility of entering into meaningful caring relationship with others is simply not available. There are genuinely-felt limitations regarding participation and co-operation.
But, thankfully, demanding as it may be, this hurt can be addressed. As it is regarding relationships with others, so it is inwardly with ourselves: it is important that we find how to enter into a relationship with ourselves wherein we are able to simply trust; not necessarily be sure, but trust.
To bring this contemplation alive, imagine swimming in the ocean. Can you recall the experience of attempting to just float on the surface? As we relax and trust, we sense that the water will support us; we don’t have to hold ourselves up. Faith feels like that. We trust in it by surrendering to it and allowing it to carry us.
Learning and Un-learning
Many people, maybe even most these days, have never enjoyed the benefit of the company of another human being who fully trusts him or herself. The consequence of this is that they have never been introduced to that possibility within themselves. It is more than an introduction; it is an induction that hasn’t taken place and should have. Often we don’t even realise how disabled we are as a result. Maybe we don’t suspect that such an experience of well-being exists. Have you ever wondered why so many people flock to be near Asian teachers when they visit the West? It is as if we are starving. One reason is that at some level we recognise these teachers have something, something we have not had before; and we want it. I’m suggesting that what we want is an induction into that place within ourselves that is genuinely trusting and trustworthy.
It’s unfortunate if we confuse the capacity to live in faith with the holding to mere beliefs. In our early lives, many of us were introduced to beliefs that we might now consider spurious; that is, we were taught to go along unquestioningly with what someone else told us. Their instruction may have been backed with the force of tradition and popularity; it may have been the generally accepted view of the society we were born into; it may have convinced us because of a charismatic presentation or appeared attractive because of its impressive logic. From the Buddha’s perspective none of these provide us with a sufficient foundation for genuine faith.
In the well-known Kalama Sutta, it is related how a group of villagers at the time of the Buddha had become confused and disheartened because so many gurus of various traditions had come by, each saying he had the only answer to questions concerning the mystery of life. Because of this, these villagers had become cynical. They listened to the Buddha’s teachings and then said to him something like: “This whole affair is very confusing. Why should we believe what you say?”The Buddha replied, “That is very good. It is no surprise that you are confused about all these views and there is no reason why you should believe me just because I say something is true. However, if you pick up what I say and examine it for yourselves, take it inwardly and inquire until you are able to see with your own eyes whether these teachings accord with your experience, then any faith that arises will be sound; it will be based on mindfulness and investigation.”
AS we make our investigations, let’s not rush to find answers. For instance, the question, “How do I find this faith if I don’t have it?” doesn’t necessarily demand an immediate answer. If we hold the ‘not-knowing’ carefully, it can elicit a clear connection with a quietly felt interest in the matter. Grasping at solutions too quickly deprives us of the chance for a possible deepening. Because we do care about the truth, we move gradually. As we reconsider conditioning that has taken place in the past, we take care not to throw things out just because they appear useless. Further inspection might show us how to recycle some of it. And likewise we take care to notice where we are holding on out of attachment to familiarity, resisting the growing sense that it is time to firmly put something aside.
Taking up a different religious path from that into which we were conditioned can b likened to starting a new relationship after having felt badly betrayed by the last one. We learn from feeling how it feels as we gently move forward, giving it time. In developing Buddhist faith, we meet ourselves where we find ourselves, acknowledging our distrust or unwillingness as part of finding our way. Progress on this path occurs when we appreciate afresh that which we already have, however undeveloped it may appear. Reliable faith grows out of the faith, or lack of it, that we already have. It is worth pondering on the fact that, if we had no faith at all, we wouldn’t be at a meeting like this.
On this point of what faith is, there is a story from Japan of a meditation master who asked the question: “What is the heart of faith?” He followed on, saying, “The heart is that which asked the question and faith inspired the asking.” For me, this speaks very loudly of what faith is, or at least how it manifests. It offers direct appreciation of how faith is a dimension of our own hearts out of which we can live.
No Quick Fix
Now what is it that we have faith in? This is not easy to talk about. The difficulty lies in our wanting to ‘get the right answer’. We tend towards thinking there is some ‘thing’ out there that, if we can ‘get it’, will make us safe. It’s similar to how I used to think that there must be, somewhere, a perfect monastery where I would perfectly fit. For people living the householder’s life, it may be the case that you believe there must be the right partner somewhere, who would make you feel good for ever.
The inquiry into finding a truly suitable object of faith is difficult because of the attitude with which we approach it. We tend to be looking for something which guarantees our safety: we want to be sure. I am not saying there is anything wrong with this approach, just that we need to be aware of it.
We need to know on what assumptions our investigations are based. In this case, we readily assume that there is actually some ‘thing’ that will do the trick for us – even take responsibility for us – and in Buddhism this is not on offer. In Buddhist practice, we don’t have faith in any ‘thing’. As I said previously, faith is a dimension out of which we live, it is not an object which we stand on or even stand by. It is simply not a thing in any case.
To attempt to understand faith by thinking about it is like trying to appreciate the fragrance of a flower by grasping for it – we wouldn’t do that. Faith is a heart fragrance, so let us try approaching our inquiry with this image. At the beginning of Evening Chanting, as I offer the incense at the shrine, I silently reflect: “May the fragrance of truth permeate my entire being – my action of body, action of speech and action of mind.” Faith is that inner dimension that gives shape and hue to all of our character.
The Buddha’s Way
In his wisdom, the Buddha emphasised how all things are impermanent. Although this observation can be difficult, it is also very helpful and needs to be applied in our investigation of faith. Saying that there is no-thing that will make us secure and no-thing that we direct our faith towards doesn’t mean we are left with nothing. What we are offered in Buddhist teaching is a ‘Way’.
A ‘way’ is about movement through life; a ‘thing’ is what we own or have. We all know how much we like to have things and the feeling of self-esteem or self-value that can grow as we get more things. We assume that the more ‘I’ have, the better ‘I’ am. Intellectually we can accept that this is false thinking, but it is still there in our minds and we must be careful that this view doesn’t creep into our contemplation.
So the Buddha isn’t giving us a faith to grasp and set up against other faiths. Speaking about his Awakening, he said, “I rediscovered an ancient Way that many others have walked before…” Nobody had been down this Way for a long time, so there were a lot of lost people around. The Pali word the Buddha used in talking about his discovery was magga, which literally means ‘way’ or ‘path’ and this refers to the Noble Eight-fold Path.
Traditionally this Way is spoken of as having three aspects: morality or discipline (sila), collectedness or tranquillity (samadhi), and wisdom or discernment (panna). These three aspects should not be seen at all sequentially – they proceed together. However, for the sake of our discussion we can consider them separately.
SILA SAMADHI PANNA
So what is sila? In Asian Buddhist culture it is recognised that someone ‘with sila’ has a particular quality to their life. This quality has a feeling tone to it. It’s automatically understood that to meet such a person immediately elicits a sense of respect. Whilst the usual words for translating sila – morality and discipline – both apply, the term that I find approximates this quality most closely is ‘integrity’. A life lived with sila is a life lived with integrity. And it is always said that in Buddhist practice this is what provides the foundation for the spiritual life.
Maybe you will have noticed that Buddha images usually show the Buddha seated on a lotus flower. The lotus is a symbol for purity of action of body and speech. But anybody who has spent time in the East may have seen lotuses growing in smelly, swampy ponds. Where I lived in Northeast Thailand, jute was one of the main cash crops for the villagers. Once harvested the plant had to be soaked for a few weeks in any low-lying water that could be found before it could be processed. And that water really stank. Yet out of the same water a beautiful white lotus would grow up and open – totally unspoiled by the filth out of which it rose.
Similarly with a life lived with sila, even though our circumstances in the world may be messy, a beauty radiates from the heart of one whose life is characterised by integrity. And the Buddha, a symbol for our potential to awaken, sits well-balanced with this as his foundation. Without this foundation the Buddha sinks into the swamp where we can’t see him. He doesn’t disappear but we might think he has. This is how it can feel at times.
With sila, or integrity, as the foundation of the Way in which he have faith, we are encourages to see how it applies to all aspects of our lives: our professions, our relationships, all our activities. We should notice very clearly the effects when integrity is compromised. It doesn’t take very much lying or cheating in a business before tensions caused by distrust undermine the operations of that enterprise. It may be that the majority of problems in companies can be traced to difficulties in this area. We need to be willing to look at this. I am not saying that you should agree with me but I’m asking that you investigate to see whether this is the case or not. See how a small thing can breed distrust and notice what effect that has.
Noticing this in our outer life, we can also look inward and find that the same process applies. How do we feel when we know we have compromised ourselves? It is as simple as recognising how our attitude to someone changes when we discover that they are dishonest. We feel just the same towards ourselves if we know we are not meeting the mark when it comes to integrity.
When Ajahn Chah visited America at the invitation of various Buddhist groups there, he listened to a lot of ‘yogis’ (meditation students), each telling a personal story and talking about the struggles they had. After hearing a few, he starting shaking his head in disbelief. He told them, “Many of you folk are like criminals going around committing crimes all over the place until you get caught and put in prison. The prison is this retreat centre; you are asking me to be your solicitor and get you out. The trouble is, when you get out I know that you’ll just go back to your old ways again. You will carry on committing crimes, get caught again and ask some other smart solicitor to get you out.” He said Westerners had to ‘clean up their act’ if they wanted their practice to bear good fruit and that his was a very basic matter. It’s not anything subtle or sophisticated. It’s about not lying, not misappropriating things, considering carefully what responsible sexuality means, stopping all killing, giving up drink and drugs. These are the five basic moral precepts of a Buddhist. If we heed the encouragement to examine our personal attitude in these areas we can find ourselves living with more complete trust in ourselves. On this foundation real practice and well-being prospers.
Another helpful connotation that this word integrity carries with it is that of cohesion. In a community where there is a firm basis of openness and honesty there is invariably also a tangible sense of some force holding things together. It is said in Buddhist Teachings that when a group of individuals live together observing what is called the ‘Human Standards’ (manussa dhamma) – these are the five precepts – then there is a real possibility of that group’s living with concord and harmony.
Regardless of opinion on the matter, if these principles are not accorded with then there is no possibility of lasting concord. Lack of integrity is the same as lack of cohesion. Once again this applies outwardly and inwardly. On the peacefulness arises. We don’t have to force our minds to become peaceful; we don’t have to strain to think clearly. When there is collectedness then clarity is there also. As it has often observed, when the winds stop and the waves on the water cease, a reflection appears in the surface of the lake.
We benefit enormously if we come to know that the work of generating clarity and fullness of energy is something that we can actually do. Through not understanding this we might assume that we are helpless in the face of our poor quality of attention. It might appear that we are somehow obliges to distract ourselves from difficulties by watching television and going along with the mediocrity of our casual culture. But from the perspective of the experience of regular practice we find that following such activity is a choice, not an obligation at all. We could also choose to sit meditation regularly. We could decide to bring awareness to the consequences of our low-grade attention span. There is something we can do about it.
The third aspect of the Buddhist Way is referred to in Pali as panna. This usually translates as ‘wisdom’. I find thee word ‘discernment’ is also helpful. Depending on how precise we are in applying attention to our experience, and how present we are, we can discern accurately or falsely. The teachings on discernment are aimed directly at showing us that we have this potential to see deeply beyond the apparent world. The Buddha wanted us to recognise for ourselves the ability to see into and beyond the way things appear to be. Discernment or insight is a power that both introduces us to this ability and supports us in exercising it.
Examining our outer life, we can readily recognise the consequences of a lack of discernment. At present here in Britain there is a general Election taking place. Very impressive speakers are each attempting to convince the population that they have all the answers. Without discernment we can easily become cynical or frustrated, thinking, “They are all the same. They all lie!” But such observations are simplistic. In reality we just don’t know whom to believe. The truth is we are uncertain, just like the Kalamas were. And the Buddha told them they were right to feel uncertain; that is a suitable reaction in an uncertain circumstance.
So what do we do in this circumstance? If someone is trying to sell us their product and we don’t know ourselves well enough to trust our response, where does this leave us? It leaves us with a clear indication of what our work is. We have to fully accept that we need to train our faculty of seeing beyond the apparent to what is real. In this way we will be able to exercise discernment accurately in the midst of confusion. Furthermore it will be wisdom itself that we’ll engage by acknowledging the need to train this faculty.
Once again taking an example from our experience of human relationships, suppose someone visits us and asks that we hear them talk about the pain in their life. Maybe from their perspective the pain is too much. They are convinced that they can’t handle it any longer. If we listen from one place within ourselves we only hear what they believe. But by relaxing our attention and feeling for a deeper place from which to listen, a place that doesn’t habitually reject uncertainty, we can hear beyond the surface appearance. Their presentation of their predicament is probably full of the judgement, “This really is too much for me.” If we go to a place within ourselves that, through insight, is freed form compulsively grasping at evaluations,, we receive a different impression. And if we have the skill to reflect this impression back to them then they might meet themselves in that place where they are many more possibilities than those they already know.
This is training our hearts to listen truly. We abide in an awareness that is freed from being driven to know the answer to the existential questions of life as they’re happening in front of us. We are not saying that the way things appear is right or wrong; we simply hold the ‘not sure’. In our example the person talking with us feels sure about the limitations of the situation and that contributes significantly to creating the problem. With skilful intention we can discover the ability to hear deeply, beyond the apparent. Feeling beyond the obvious, we arrive at a new way of seeing altogether.
THE RADIANCE OF FAITH
These three aspects of the Way that I’ve been presenting as integrity, collectedness and discernment are what we as Buddhists look towards in faith. Hopefully, you can see this is not a blind form of faith but a considered response to the actual uncertainty of life. We choose to trust that actions based on these well-considered principles will guide us towards responsible living. And from the confidence that grows out of this felt sense of personal responsibility we find the strength that supports daring. If we can afford to be daring, then we can really hope.
Hope is a natural radiance that emanates from faith. When we realise this, then we can dare to engage hope enthusiastically. And, as we do so, the daring releases a potential for extraordinary creativity – a wonderfully constructive and agile mind is already waiting to be uncovered within faith. Where do you think Nelson Mandala or Mother Theresa found inspiration? It wasn’t in the lovely scenery around them. It was in the same place inside them that was able to receive, free from evaluation, feelings of hopelessness and despair. If they were not familiar with that place of faith, despair would have been denied and all hope, with its faculty for limitless imagination and its possibility for resolution, would have lain unrecognised. This variety of daring doesn’t necessarily mean being bold or heroic. It means having freedom from fear of uncertainty; freedom to discover something new. It means engaging creative investigation without needing to know where we’ll end up. Because of an inner attitude of trusting in reality we are able to adjust and accord with what is immediately in front of us.
To give one last example, at present I am involved in helping to build a monastery in Northumberland. It is a risk to attempt to establish a celibate renunciant community based on an ancient tradition, in Britain at the end of the 20th century. There is a large investment of time and energy and of course that carries responsibility so we have to look closely at what we are doing. Robes, alms-bowls and shaven heads fitted comfortably in an agrarian society and one wonders how they will cope as they encounter the Internet. This is definitely an uncertain affair. But there is nothing wrong with uncertainty. Uncertainty is the fact.
For the past four years, the trustees of Ratanagiri have been dealing with a legal dispute that arose over a neighbour accusing us of stealing his land. Whilst there is no foundation in reality for such accusations, the nature of the legal system and of culture-clash have meant a huge expenditure of monastery funds on something with which I would never have imagined becoming involved. In the beginning, some mornings I would wake with a sick feeling in my stomach and I would start wondering if it was worth all the struggle. I’ve not attained to the stage of being able to remain perfectly passive in the face of such an unpleasant attack. However, without considerable faith and the tolerance it affords, I know I would have found the complexity of the situation overwhelmingly hopeless. I couldn’t have dared to believe that the whole thing would be amicably resolved. Now I’m pleased to have been able to stay with it and come to see the doubts and fears for what they are: apparitions of despair that challenge faith in true principle. They are not what they appear to be. But such challenges seem real in their appearance – there should be no mistake about that.
As the monks and nuns of the Chinese Ch’an tradition have put it, our task is to “Accord with conditions without compromising true principle.” To be able to accord with what is happening in our lives now without losing ourselves is the point. To live our lives in this manner is blamelessness we are free. Our imagination and creativity can blossom in the service of reality. It is our faith in true, considered principles that has brought his about.
Without firm inner grounding, the outer conditions of change disturb us excessively. Hence the encouragement to contemplate. Joyously, when we reconnect with the ability to engage our life in hope, we find that a heart of faith is already there to guide us.
I wish you well in you daring.